Bill Clinton: It’s time to overturn DOMA

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In a strongly worded op-ed piece in the Washington Post last week, former President Bill Clinton said it was time to undo the Defense of Marriage Act, which he signed into law 17 years ago. DOMA prohibits the federal government from recognizing gay marriage. And on March 27 the Supreme Court will begin hearing oral arguments in a DOMA case.

“As the president who signed the act into law, I have come to believe that DOMA is contrary to those principles and, in fact, incompatible with our Constitution,” he wrote in the op-ed. “When I signed the bill, I included a statement  with the admonition that “enactment of this legislation should not, despite the fierce and at times divisive rhetoric surrounding it, be understood to provide an excuse for discrimination.” Reading those words today, I know now that, even worse than providing an excuse for discrimination, the law is itself discriminatory. It should be overturned.”

President Obama filed a brief with the Supreme Court arguing against DOMA last month.

President Clinton goes on to lay out his reasons why he first signed the bill and now why he believes it’s unconstitutional such as “Among other things, these couples cannot file their taxes jointly, take unpaid leave to care for a sick or injured spouse or receive equal family health and pension benefits as federal civilian employees. Yet they pay taxes, contribute to their communities and, like all couples, aspire to live in committed, loving relationships, recognized and respected by our laws.”

He concludes his piece with:

“Americans have been at this sort of a crossroads often enough to recognize the right path. We understand that, while our laws may at times lag behind our best natures, in the end they catch up to our core values. One hundred fifty years ago, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln concluded a message to Congress by posing the very question we face today: “It is not ‘Can any of us imagine better?’ but ‘Can we all do better?’”

“The answer is of course and always yes. In that spirit, I join with the Obama administration, the petitioner Edith Windsor, and the many other dedicated men and women who have engaged in this struggle for decades in urging the Supreme Court to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.”

On the New Yorker Web site, Richard Socarides, a former adviser to the Clinton White House on LGBT issues said in a reaction piece:

“As Republicans prepared for the 1996 Presidential election, they came up with what they thought was an extremely clever strategy. A gay-rights lawsuit in Hawaii was gaining press coverage as an initial series of preliminary court rulings suggested that gay marriage might be legally conceivable there. Clinton was on the record opposing marriage equality. But Republicans in Congress believed that he would still veto legislation banning federal recognition of otherwise valid same-sex marriages, giving them a campaign issue: the defense of marriage.”

So because Clinton was boxed in by Republicans, Socarides believed back then that the president had no choice but to the sign bill or face defeat in the general election against Bob Dole. Socarides points out that in 2004 the issue of gay marriage was successfully used against John Kerry to defeat him, by making sure it was on the ballot in several states including all important Ohio.

“While there continues to be a tremendous amount of angst over President Clinton's signing of DOMA and DADT into law, it is comforting to know Clinton has shown the courage to reverse his position on DOMA and telling the story of how this discriminatory law impacts LGBT people,” said South Florida Democratic activist Michael Rajner.

While Clinton’s op-ed is probably less important than Obama’s Supreme Court brief John Aravosis of AmericanBlog opines that it may still matter to the nation’s highest court.

“It’s not only symbolically important that Bill Clinton, the President who signed, and bragged about, DOMA is now in favor of striking down the law, it also may help us when the DOMA case goes before the Supreme Court at the end of this month.

Whether on DOMA, or gay marriage generally, the Supreme Court will likely look towards a number of factors, including “society at large” in making its decision.  It’s thought that the court generally doesn’t like to get too far ahead of the culture when dealing with hot-button social issues.  So in the same way that President Obama’s recent re-embrace of same-sex marriage should help us before the court, Bill Clinton’s position on DOMA (and his embrace of marriage equality a while back) should help as well.” Jason Parsley

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